It’s difficult to conduct an interview about a film that no one’s supposed to be talking about, but there’s more fascinating things going on beyond the mystery of Catfish.
In a closed door, password-protected session, I sat down for a lengthy conversation with directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, and the subject of the documentary Nev Shulman to discuss how real everything was, the horror aspect, aborted plans to use Bruce Willis’s face for advertising, the list of possible titles, it’s Grizzly Man connection, and what they’re turning down the Justin Bieber biopic to make next.
[Spoilers exist simply because we’ll be talking openly about the film.]
So tell me a little bit about how you guys came into this project.
Nev: Uh, well I mean, it started as, just a relationship that I was having. A friendship with Abby, an 8 year old, who was a fan of my photography and who I was a fan of her artwork. And I remember a box came to our office one day and I said to Rel and Henry, I said “hey guys check this out, a girl from Michigan did a painting of my photo from a movie that they [Rel and Henry] made. It was a set photograph from a production that they had done. And I showed them this adorable little watercolor and it just lit up the office and everyone was so excited about it. And as we do all the time in our lives, Rel took out his little HD camera and said like “Nev, tell me what that is.” You know?
And so I said on camera, like “hey this is a little painting from my friend in Michigan” and that was it. Couple weeks later, an email that was really funny. And I said to Rel and Henry, “hey guys you gotta hear this email.” So I read it. And then he said “hey let me…read that again, that’s funny.” And that was it for 8 months, it was just little funny things here and there.
And it was just sort of a side project that they hadn’t even considered…
Henry: Not even really a project. It’s just like a…I don’t even know how we categorize that stuff. Cause we do this stuff.
Just little stuff, just like you take pictures at a party one night you don’t really expect to do anything with them, other than maybe post them on Facebook or something, it just kinda happens.
Rel: It’s a diary sketch. Our diaries are video diaries basically. It’s like 2 minutes from Wednesday the 14th June 2007. [awkward pause] I’m…I’m autistic…
Rain Man over here…
Rel: 24 cookies. 24 cookies. Definitely 24 cookies. Umm… So yeah, so we’re basically compulsive chroniclers. And technology has gotten to a point where HD is small and inexpensive. And if you’re a photographer, we’re all photographers or just like capturers, chroniclers, you might as well roll. It doesn’t cost you much. It’s just a little memory card. [You can] store it away. We have stacks of hard drives of random moments that may become background evidence for a developing story that hasn’t yet twisted.
So at what point did you guys kinda sit down and say, “wait, maybe we actually have something that we can turn into a film.”
Henry: It was that moment in Vail where we find out about the songs. The two of us [nods toward Rel] turned to each other we were like “we should be filming all the time now.” And we basically didn’t stop rolling for a week after that.
Well it got kinda heated there it seemed, for a little bit between you guys. Was it more heated off screen? I mean it felt like maybe we only caught the tip of the iceberg on screen.
Henry: There was some more heat.
Rel: It’s funny that’s actually a line in the movie, “the tip of the iceberg.” Yeah, there was more heat. There was like…yeah, I guess there was more heat.
Nev: There were moments before that where I still didn’t appreciate the potential value of the footage that they were accumulating. And I would say to Rel like “get the fuck out of my face.” You know what I mean? Like “I don’t need you…I’m on the phone with Megan, can you get out of my face please? I’m having a conversation with my friend, I don’t need your camera right here.” And he would back up, but still film, but just sort of back up a little bit.
Rel: A little bit…
Nev: But then yeah, when it became clear to them and to some extent to me that something was happening outside my realm of understanding. That there was, you know, a sort of outer space going on. I had to remind them, “chill out…”
It’s still your life…
Nev: Yeah, this could get messy for me. I’m not sure where it’s going, I’m nervous, I’m afraid, I’m starting to feel a little hurt. I need you guys to be my friend and brother…
Nev: …before, right. And he got it. I just needed to say it once. And then I also, it became clear that we were all sort of going on this journey together. We were all risking our safety and sort of …emotions.
It’s like the fear of the unknown. They seem like normal people just talking to them, but you just don’t know.
Rel: Right and what’s scarier than when something that seems totally not scary could be? That’s…true horror.
And then you start flashing back and you’re like “no, I saw this in Dear Zachary. We really need to be careful.”
Henry: I still haven’t seen that movie.
Oh you really need to at some point.
Rel: This movie is a horror movie in a way. People are like “it’s not what I thought it was. The trailer made it seem like a horror movie.”
Henry: Well part of the movie is.
Rel: It’s a scary movie.
There are definitely horrific aspects. But what do you guys think about the marketing? I mean the marketing does kinda put it out there as this huge like “don’t let anyone tell you what it is” there’s this huge twist. It doesn’t feel that way watching the film. It feels like this very gradual thing that kinda happens naturally and it almost seems like that’s where it has to go. It doesn’t come out of left field like Bruce Willis is dead.
Henry: Yeah, it’s one of those things where when you look back it’s like “oh, that all makes sense now in retrospective.” You know the marketing is like, the challenge is of course how do you get people to go see the movie and tell them as little as possible? And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with the posters and with the trailer. Somebody at the screening last night was like “I came expecting horror movie, but I wasn’t disappointed because…because I was expecting a horror movie, I got something totally different. I was looking in the wrong direction.”
And got kinda caught off-guard.
Nev: Like “it caught me that much more off-guard”
Rel: And also, we don’t have Bruce Willis. So the marketing 101 that we learned was, if you don’t have a movie star…
Henry: Don’t put a face on the poster.
Rel: Yeah, if you don’t have a movie star you can’t put a face on your poster cause that won’t sell it. So you need to come up with like a catchy image.
Henry: So we thought about putting Bruce Willis just at the very end, just for a second so we could put his face on the poster but…
Didn’t quite work out? That’s a shame.
Rel: Although my dad does look like Bruce Willis…
Henry: Then we considered kinda like putting John McCain on the poster and having him laughing maniacally but that didn’t work out either…
Well the title is kind of a misdirect too, because you’re almost waiting the whole film to figure out what the title means and then it’s kind of thrown in with this last little bit with Vince. Was that always the title or did you guys kinda vacillate a little bit?
Rel: No, not at all. That was always the end of the film, but it never occurred to us as the title until this buddy Ben Younger who made Boiler Room…
Oh, great film.
Rel: Yeah, great film. We showed him the movie, we said “we have no idea what the title of the movie is.”
Nev: Wait is he on our list?
Nev. OK, good. For the premiere.
Rel: We have no idea what the title is, check it out and if you have any ideas let us know. We were just calling it sort of like
Nev: Yaniv’s Internet Girlfriend
Rel: Sort of an untitled Facebook thing…
No no, that’s great, because that sounds more like a Sundance title.
Rel: We had all these indie, Sundance names like…
Henry: It’s All Down Hill From Here
Rel: The Facebook Family or like…
Nev: Iceberg actually.
Rel: Iceberg…or like How Facebook Broke My Heart. Just like sad, indie titles.
So what about your conversation with Ben made you settle on Catfish?
Rel: Well he finished the movie and he was like “guys…”
Henry: He just predicted that we would call it that.
Rel: …he goes, “I got your title.” And we’re like what is it, what is it? “Catfish.”
And you’re like, “what the fuck are you talking about?”
Rel: [We’re like] very funny man, yeah.
Nev: But it was on the list of like 30 names that we struggled with until two days before Sundance when they called and they’re like “we’re printing the programs, what do you want your movie to be called?”
Rel: And it was like, let’s just call it something that no other movie’s been called.
Nev: Except for a very bad short film. [everyone laughs] Have you seen it?
No, but you gotta look up on IMDb and see what else is…
Rel: And actually it’s not even on IMDb.
Nev: And unfortunately one of the first articles that came out of Sundance, someone blindly linked a YouTube trailer of a film called Catfish to our article. And since then we’ll never ever unassociate with that clip. It’s out there and it’s the woooorst film you’ll ever see.
Awesome. So it’s good to be associated with that, it’s good to have your name on that.
Rel: Actually there was that B-horror movie from the 70s…
Henry: People were like this is the most talked about film at Sundance? Really?
What is that feeling like? To be the most talked about film at Sundance. Is that just…
Henry: It seemed like a dream.
Rel: Or a prank.
Henry: Or a prank, yeah.
Rel: I mean no one knew our names. We’ve never been in a film festival before. We weren’t in competition. Somehow we had good enough publicity to sell out the first screening and immediately there was a standing ovation and like an hour and a half long question and answer.
Nev: Yeah, I mean I think it’s fair to say that it also had a lot to do with Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling. Because after Capturing the Friedman’s they were sort of like the Sundance kids. And I don’t know if they’d been back since then…
Henry: No. I mean Andrew was on the jury…
Nev: Oh right. But then all of sudden, people see like oh Jarecki’s got a new film at Sundance…
Rel: They’re our producers.
Nev: …what is it? You know, it’s gotta be something.
Henry: And Capturing the Friedman’s was huge at Sundance.
Well let me change directions a little bit and ask you [Nev], is it uncomfortable to see yourself on the big screen in this very personal story for you? Are you embarrassed?
Nev: It’s funny…
It’s gotta be kinda awkward.
Nev: It was awkward at first in the office when they were editing in like the back room and I would hear my voice. I would sort of want to go in and see what they were doing with me but at the same time it was like I can’t possibly be objective or fair. I’m almost too close to have a fair reaction to what they’re doing and I understood that.
But then once the movie took shape and we started screening it with other people. And I watched it. It was fun. I kinda got to go through that journey, go on that trip all over again and be reminded of just how excited I was and how in love I thought I might and how shocked I was. All those emotions that for better or worse, led to who I am today now, I got to sort of relive. And as the movie now sort of grows not only in size but also literally in like size on bigger and bigger screens now, it’s kinda become that much more magnified. They had to pull me out the other day of a screening in Toronto cause I started to get sucked in. The music started to play over the opening credits and I was just like, “what happens?”
Henry: And we’re like “OK, we’ve seen it 3,000 times…”
Nev: I guess I just think it’s a really good movie and I like watching it.
Rel: Also, you’re really lucky that you have basically the craziest thing that ever happened to you on tape.
Rel: Not only is it on tape, it’s not just raw footage. Like a couple people spent a year and a half like putting everything together and making it as entertaining as possible.
Nev: Everybody likes watching like funny old home video of them.
Rel: Yeah, we have no home video from when were kids either, basically, we have like a total of 10 minutes.
But you have this on tape
Do you guys still keep in touch with Angela? I mean obviously the end title card says you’re still friends on Facebook, but do you still talk to her? Has she seen the film?
Nev: We are yeah. She’s seen the film.
What did she think about it?
Nev: Her reaction was positive, she thought it was fair.
Rel: She thanked us for treating it fairly and thought that we were the right people to do it. Cause someone could have really flipped out and…
Well I gotta say, I feel like the last kind of monologue she has where she’s crying and explaining her thoughts behind it, I feel like you really sympathize with her as a viewer…
But then you guys throw up that last title card where it’s like also she lied about this and this and this and it kinda feels a little mean-spirited.
Henry: Oh really? We didn’t mean for it to be that way.
Do you see what I mean?
It’s like you sympathize with her and then it’s like oh but she’s still lying.
Rel: But that’s the truth.
No, I understand.
Nev: I think those title cards were in part inspired by the most frequently asked questions after the film. Before we had them people were like, “well did you ever meet Megan?”
Does she really exist, is she really in rehab?
Rel: How’s Angela’s cancer?
I guess it’s kinda that thing where she almost can’t tell the whole truth at once, it has to come out in bits and pieces. And when she’s telling it in bits and pieces I guess you kinda have to deny certain elements.
Nev: It’s also important to remember that she told us she had cancer and she told us about Megan at Dawn Farms while she was still trying to salvage…this fantasy.
It’s like she knew she was caught…
Nev: And then once she came clean, it changed. But those were like the last things that she sort of grasped for as she tried to find a way to make…
Henry: Also that’s just like, it’s real life, you know?
Sometimes it’s messy.
Henry: It’s just not black and white. It’s like, it can’t be this perfect fairy-tale ending, like Angela’s perfectly better now and everything’s great.
On no, I don’t think anyone really expects that.
Henry: She’s better, she’s not perfect, you know, she’s still struggling. Nev wasn’t like happy and skipping down the street at the end of the movie. He was in like deep depression.
You’ve gotta feel some anger for that, if for nothing else than just for loss of time.
Nev: Yeah again, I don’ think…I don’t blame or I have no anger toward Angela for using me.
It doesn’t come off as malicious and you feel bad for someone that’s that lonely.
Nev: But I also, I’m grateful for it. I learned a lot about myself. She sort of pushed me to explore a part of me that I sort of hadn’t explored and consider an alternate sort of existence that I had always considered but never really seriously thought about which was like moving away from the City, and living in a very sort of small, simple…I don’t mean simple in like a bad way.
No I understand, you mean different from Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for awhile and it was different from any other experience I’ve ever had in my wife…
Rel: in your wife?
In my wife, yes.
Nev: But yeah, I let myself get taken on that trip with her as much as she took me in as much as she needed it. It was very mutual.
You both get to experience…
Rel: Well you both lived a fantasy for 9 months.
Rel: The funny part is people ask us if we were ever suspicious. And we were a little bit suspicious but the truth was he was the happiest he’d ever been. She created this world that was exactly what he wanted and needed and it was shaped and tailored around him.
Henry: And he was sweeter than he had ever been.
Rel: He was so nice to us.
Henry: On the phone we were just like who is he talking to on the phone, he’s just so sweet.
You take people at face value and it’s like this is what you’ve presented and I have no reason to doubt that. Until things progress to the point where you’re like, wait a second, here’s this other song. There’s always the one lynchpin, but aside from that there’s no reason to suspect that she’s anything other than what she purports herself to be.
Rel: It was so much nicer than meeting like another defensive New Yorker, another judgmental, defensive New Yorker. This whole family was just like so open to all of his best qualities and they were looking to make friends. And he sort of was like well that’s a better perspective on life.
Henry: It could have been disastrous what we found. You know, it could have been like a nightmare.
I think one of the more horrific scenes is where you’re pulling up to the barn in Gladstone. It’s late at night anyway, which is automatically scary. You’re somewhere you’ve never been, that you’ve driven from Chicago all night and you don’t know what you’re going to find. I don’t know, how terrifying is that? It seems terrifying in the film, I guess I’m just kinda assuming it must have been the same for you.
Nev: Somehow, fear was not on my radar. I was just…
You were just looking for the truth.
Nev: That was some of the impulsivity that has gotten me into situations like this in the past. Which is just like, we’re here let’s do it. Like don’t ask questions, just go for it.
Henry: Drive into the driveway, do it.
Rel: I had never been more scared in my life.
OK, good, I’m glad someone else had the same reaction I did.
Henry: That’s why I wanted to back into the driveway cause I was like in a second a light’s going turn on in the house and a guy’s gonna run out with a shotgun and I’m gonna have to peel out, so I wanted to be pointed in the right direction.
Rel: But he was so brave that he sort of psyched us up. It’s like, he’s already out of the car, better catch up. And then there was always this like sort of dream that if shit did hit the fan and we died, that there would be footage, and that maybe this would be like a Grizzly Man.
So instead of a documentary you’ve got a nice found footage movie.
Rel: Yeah, like Grizzly Man, that’s one of our favorite movies of all time. So at one point in Colorado we started sending footage home. Just in case. So that they would have some of the background.
Henry: Yeah, to our editors.
Understandable but kinda paranoid.
Totally with justifiable reasons.
Henry: We didn’t know what was going to happen you know.
Are there things you wish you could back and change about how you handled the situation? Like if you had it do over again would you do the same things?
Henry: There’s only one thing I would change, and that’s recording your [Nev’s] voicemail messages.
Nev: Oh gosh yeah that’s it. I had an iPhone and Megan had left me 6 or so longer messages that were particularly interesting or had to do with some event that had taken place in her life that I had been saving for months.
Henry: We just slacked off.
Nev: We hadn’t recorded them yet. And then one day they were gone. And I called Apple, and I was just like “uh, what happened to my voicemails?” And they said, “oh, sometimes the iPhone needs memory to run an application and it default clears your voicemail.” And I was just like “that’s it, they’re just gone?” And she was like “sorry.” And we never got ‘em.
Henry: But that would have been so great at the end of the film.
Nev: Yeah, oh, “beep, call me.”
Do you still think about it?
Nev: Those voicemails?
Well I mean, the whole thing. It seems like the type of thing that would pervade your thoughts for awhile, do you get to the point where you can just kinda look at it…
Nev: It’s interesting, now I almost only remember it as a movie. You know how when you’re a kid something happens to you and you were a little too young to really remember, but you remember the story that your parents told you. And so you tell the story like it’s your memory. Or from a photo…
Henry: Right. Yeah, you’re like, “yeah, I think I remember that.” But you just remember the photo.
That’s how it feels already?
Nev: That’s sorta how it feels now, because they will constantly bring things up, details from the emails or…cause they spent so much time studying it. And for me it was an email that I wrote two and a half years ago, I don’t remember what I said. But they read it three or four times. They know it better than I do. And they’re constantly sort of reminding me of things I had forgotten about cause you just don’t remember everything. It wasn’t something I was studying, it was an experience I was having. So I’m really glad that the film exists…
Rel: It’s a document.
Henry: A record.
Nev: Yeah, it’s an important part of my life.
So going forward do you see yourself staying friends with Angela and continuing that relationship?
Nev: Yeah, I mean I…hope that you know…in a strange way our lives will forever be…
Nev: Linked. And my attitude towards anybody that I’m involved with is I hope that it’s a positive link. You know? And I think she’s a talented, very creative, smart, passionate person. And yeah, I hope that we can continue to correspond and collaborate even at some point and stay friends.
What do you guys hope to continue doing? Do you want make another film, what’s on the table for you? Obviously you’re probably caught up with this.
Henry: Right now we are, yeah. I mean we have…
Do you want to keep going with documentaries, do you want to kinda dip into narrative?
Rel: There’s too much pressure on it. We love docs, we consider ourselves documentary filmmakers, but it would be so hard to top this one right now. Especially if you were looking for it. So…maybe I’ll write a movie.
Henry: We’re reading scripts, people are sending us scripts, now…
Rel: Yeah, we’re looking for stories.
Henry: Which is strange.
Is it? Is it kind of a weird experience?
Henry: Getting sent scripts? Yeah. It is.
Nev: It’s also weird cause I’m not part of that, I’m not a filmmaker. I mean, I’m not the kind of filmmaker that they are. And it’s crazy cause I’ve seen scripts come through the office over the last few months that are now being made, that potentially you guys could be making, it’s just like wild. And obviously they couldn’t cause we knew we had this coming, but…
Henry: I mean there have been one or two things that we were interested in and kind of got in the preliminary stages of talking about and then for one reason or another they didn’t happen…
Rel: Like the 3D Justin Bieber doc. Seriously. I could have done something with that.
That would have been a big chunk of change.
Rel: I don’t think anyone’s going to pay us much.
Henry: I think it scale based on experience.
Oh well, certainly yeah.
Rel: I think it could make a big chunk of change though.
Definitely yeah, you’d have to get your backend deal worked out, get some points.
Nev: I’m also pursuing my photography more.
[Rel, Henry and I laugh]
Nev: Which is what I was doing at the time.
Sorry to talk about…
Henry: No no, back to you Nev.
It’s really all about Nev.
Nev: Yeah, I mean the movie is sort of about me and I’m a photographer so I think that’s important.
No that’s good, are you going to try to do like gallery shows or…
Nev: Yeah, I’d love to, I mean the film has certainly opened doors for me…
Yeah, you’ve definitely gotten some more exposure based on this.
Nev: So it’s sort of the push that I needed to take my art a little bit more seriously.
Well it had to have been kind of a different experience thinking all right well we’re going to submit it to Sundance, and 300 people will be at the screening and maybe another 300 at the second screening. How do you go from that to actually getting a wide release and potentially millions of people seeing the film?
Henry: I don’t know yet.
Nev: I’m scared, I’m very nervous and scared about it…
In what way?
Nev: In a weird way. I mean just because like you just have no control. Even in the marketing, we get creative consultation, but the reality is the movie now has its own legs, it has its own lifeforce, its own energy. And people have such different feelings and reactions to everything. I mean even what could be the most simplest thing like this bottle opener, like you could hate it, you could love it.
Henry: I love it.
Nev: Yeah, I happen to also love it.
Rel: I like it too.
Or just like me thinking that the title card was kind of mean-spirited and you guys being taken aback by that.
Rel: So either the movie’s going to hit a nerve or it’s not.
Nev: Yeah, but either way like it’s nerve-wracking for me, because it’s about me, or something that happened to me. I don’t know…it’d be one thing if I were acting in a film that was a buddy copy comedy and some people loved it and would come up to me and be like “oh you were great in…whatever Rush Hour 6” or “oh I…
But this is like “you were great in your life.”
Nev: Right, and if they don’t like me…
Rel: Or you sucked in your life.
Nev: Right, it’s very personal. So you know, I gotta be ready for that and I’m a little nervous about it. But excited.
Understandable. Well I wish you guys the best of luck with it.
Rel: Thanks, man.